I became a fan of historical fiction thanks to an attack of smallpox when I was 12.
Dad and mom went off to work leaving me in my sick bed, protectively buffered by layers of neem leaves and watched over by a maid. To alleviate the crushing boredom, I raided dad’s bookshelf and, since I was growing up in the Tamil Nadu of M G Ramachandran, got attracted to a book with a sword-wielding swashbuckler on the cover.
Relevant digression: I had a horror of having my teeth pulled. So whenever such removal – most often accomplished through the medium of a string tied to the base of the tooth, and the insertion of a spoon at the strategic moment – became necessary, the deal was if I submitted quietly and refrained from biting dad’s finger off, I would be treated to an MGR movie. Most MGR movies of the time involved swords.
So. Samuel Shellabarger’s Prince of Foxes was the ideal antidote to the pain of pox; I followed it up with Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche and Captain Blood [Three weekends ago, I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon re-reading Fortune’s Fool] and by the time I was back on my feet, had become addicted to period dramas.
Still am. Favorites include in no particular order all the works of Alexander Dumas pere [not fils who in any case was a playwright and wrote only one novel]; the historical plays of William Shakespeare; Conn Iggulden’s Emperor quartet on the Rome of Julius Caesar and his more recent Genghis Khan series, now three books and counting; Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series [in which three of seven books remain unread]; Tariq Ali’s Islam quartet [Shadows of the
Pomegranate Tree, The Book of Saladin, The Stone Woman and Sultan of Palermo]; Margaret George’s ‘autobiography’ of Henry VIII and her other novels Mary Called Magdalene, The Memoirs of Cleopatra and Helen of Troy… [Add the Elizabethan romances of Georgette Heyer, repetitive though the plotlines are; the HBO television series Rome and the Showtime series Tudors..]
Their subjects vary, ditto treatment, but all these writers are linked by certain common traits: an infinite capacity for research [it is a different matter that some adhere to the history they have delved into while others permit themselves varying degrees of freedom to reinvent]; vivid imaginations that permit them to make a long dead past come alive in glorious color, light and sound; superb narrative technique; an educated eye for the telling detail and a cultivated year for pitch perfect dialogs…
All of them take seminal events and transformative personalities of the past as the base for their narratives and, in the hands of the really skilled writers, the events come alive as avoidable tragedy or inevitable triumph.
These books take you out of the present into a fabled past and allow you to inhabit it; some even pull off the delicate act of using the prism of the past to address contemporary concerns. One of many possible examples is Robert Newton Peck’s Hang for Treason. Writing in the mid-seventies against the backdrop of nationwide angst over the Vietnam war [I stumbled on a copy somewhere in those eight miles of books that make up NY's Strand bookstore, and read it some four months after the start of the war in Iraq], Peck reinterpreted the career of American revolutionary hero Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys and spun it into the prevailing zeitgeist; thus, in Peck’s telling Allen and his band were motivated not so much by a driving desire for liberty as they were for a selfish, greedy hunger for land; their story in Peck’s telling was not a noble struggle for liberty but terrorism, pure and simple.
Even as I continued to enjoy the historical romances, it bugged me no end that fiction based on Indian history is almost non-existent, at least in the English language [if you have recommendations, appreciate it much].
Our history is a vast untapped mine for fiction, but given the national proclivity to take offense at the slightest – or even no – provocation, attempting fiction based on Indian history is the modern equivalent of the time-honored Japanese practice of sepukku.
A welcome addition to the limited canon is Raiders From the North, the first in what is planned as a five-book series on
the Moghuls by ‘Alex Rutherford’, the nom de plume of English husband and wife team Michael and Diana Preston [‘Alex Rutherford lives in London’, is all it says on the inside dust jacket].
In terms of narrative skill, I’d rate ‘Alex’ fairly low down in the list above. But the authors have a lot going for them — not least a story with immense scope and sweep which they tell through the eyes of people, some real, some imagined, who are in close proximity to the protagonist, Babur. Nilanjana Roy has a full-sized review of the book on her blog, so I’ll leave you with that. It made my weekend. Next up, Humayun – can’t wait for it to hit the shelves.
And now I have no more excuse for putting off the mystery of the misplaced symbol – while on which, you might enjoy this Telegraph list of what in any other writer would be outright howlers, but what in Dan Brown is the highlight of his ‘style’.
The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.
A silhouette with white hair and pink irises stood chillingly close but 15 feet away. What’s wrong with this picture?
We can likely come up with 20 times 20 high quality howlers, but think the readers care? Publisher Sonny Mehta is over the moon that the book broke existing first day sales records; and Amazon has the best of both worlds, selling both the hard cover and the Kindle version with the latter outpacing the former [Amazon shares went up $7.75].
But, as happened with J. K. Rowling’s books, heavy discounting means that the real financial bonanza is likely to be limited to Brown, his agent and his publishers (Transworld in the UK; Doubleday in the US) rather than booksellers.
Supermarkets, internet retailers and the big chains are selling it at around half price (although Waterstone’s claims that it can still make a profit doing that). Most independent bookshops will simply not compete.
PS: Back here Wednesday.